I can’t figure out what I think about this. I just go on a parade of “on the other hands” that never end up at a settled opinion. I do that a lot. I’m not very good at resolving ambivalence. That’s a problem when you have to make a decision – when you’re a judge, for instance – but I don’t think it’s entirely bad when you’re just thinking. It’s not always terrible to see merit on both (or several) sides of an issue. One of the things that annoys me most about the current campaign to expel me from the Community of Good People is the fervent loathing of ambivalence.
Oskar Gröning is a 94-year old German who came to public attention ten years ago when he appeared in a BBC documentary to refute Holocaust deniers; as a former member of the SS, he verified the existence of the Auschwitz gas chambers. Gröning, a trained bank clerk, had joined the SS as a 20-year old in September 1942; he was assigned to remove the luggage from the loading ramps of the train station at the Auschwitz- Birkenau camp and to count the bank notes in the luggage and send them to the Reich security office in Berlin. Gröning was not accused of any violence against those incarcerated.
I happen to have seen part of a documentary about Auschwitz on one of the cable channels the other night, that incorporated parts of that BBC documentary in which Gröning appeared. First there was a bit in which an interviewer asked him if he felt guilt for his involvement, and he said no, on the grounds that he was just a cog. Callous, I thought. But then later there was another bit, in which the narrator explained that Gröning had gone public to talk about his role in order to counter the Holocaust deniers. That changed the picture somewhat.
And I just don’t know. On the one hand it was Nazi Germany. On the other hand he joined the SS. On the other hand it was more than 70 years ago. On the other hand it was Auschwitz. On the other hand what good is revenge? On the other hand I think Bill Cosby should still be accountable. On the other hand Gröning is 94. On the other hand what about the victims, very much including the survivors? And so on.
Although Poland wanted to try Gröning after the war for suspicion of war crimes at Auschwitz, the Americans closed down the pursuit of low-ranking Nazis because it interfered with their priorities of rebuilding of Germany and fighting Communism in Europe. Between 1945 and 2005, 172,294 people were investigated for war crimes in Germany; 6,656 were convicted. Sixty-five hundred Auschwitz guards have stood trial, and up until this trial, there were only 49 convictions; only a handful served prison terms.
That seems all wrong. Then again is punishment anything other than revenge?
For many decades, the German legal system would not prosecute former members of the SS or concentration camp guards unless there was evidence that linked them directly to the mass killings of the Holocaust. The situation changed with Germany’s 2011 conviction of John Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian guard at the Sobibor camp in Nazi-occupied Poland; the court ruled that Demjanjuk had aided and abetted mass murder just by working at a concentration camp. Demjanjuk died in 2012, before his appeal could be heard; but from then on, an individual’s employment at a concentration camp could be considered adequate to pursue a war crimes conviction at this court.
It almost seems like a cynical game. “Well we’ll leave you alone for six decades or so, but then we’re coming after you.”
At the start of Gröning’s April, 2015 trial for complicity in the deaths of 300,000 Holocaust victims, he stated: “This moral guilt I acknowledge here, before the victims, with regret and humility;” it was up to the court to decide his legal guilt. The trial raised the issue of whether those who did not personally participate in the Nazi machine’s killings were still guilty of the crimes. Prosecutors argued that Gröning’s actions as a bookkeeper make him criminally complicit in the regime responsible for mass murder.
I do think cogs are complicit. I think we’re all complicit in all sorts of things – living off the cheap labor of other people, for example. But complicit is one thing and deserving punishment is another. There’s also the fact that he was 21 when he joined the SS; he’s now 94. He’s not the same person.
The twelve-week trial in Germany ended on July 15, 2015 when Gröning was found guilty of being an accessory to the murder of 300,000 Hungarian Jews and he was sentenced to four years in prison. Judge Frank Kompisch delivered the verdict, making it plain that every German had a choice about how far to go along with the Nazi government. The judge said that while Gröning had not been directly involved in the killings he had been an integral cog in the machine of the Auschwitz extermination apparatus…. “a machinery designed entirely for the killing of humans” that was “inhumane and all but unbearable for the human psyche”. To join the SS and take “a safe desk job” at Auschwitz “was your decision.” he said, ”but it was not because you were unfree.” “Mr Gröning, don’t tell me you did not see the suffering, of course you saw it.” The verdict will be appealed.
Saying he saw it is why he came forward in the first place. He came forward to tell the deniers that he had been at Auschwitz, he had seen the gas chambers, he knew it had happened – he was there. (That was in the documentary I saw.) He took a risk by doing it.